De La Soul: One of the Greatest Rap Groups Ever

And that ain’t just hyperbole

By the end of the day there will be a decent amount of media coverage on De La Soul’s ninth release …and the Anonymous Nobody but very few of them will call the Plugs one of the Greatest Rap Groups.

The go to answers for the “Who’s The Greatest Rap Group” question are generally Outkast, Tribe, Run DMC, and an occasional Wu Tang. I can’t say that I ever heard anyone say De La. Sadly, I think the reason is most people have never given the Long Island group with a career spanning almost thirty years a fair chance.

Because if they gave Pos & Dave a proper listen they wouldn’t just be giving them credit for their longevity or the classic albums that they’ve dropped in the past. Instead they would be enthralled at how De La never fell into a tried and true formula that many so-called old school artist falls in. Nope. De La continues to try new styles and different approaches to recording and releasing their music.

How many other groups can say that?

This won’t be an album by album retrospective, although it could be. What we’re going to be focused on is the groups consistency and yes…their staying power…all this while being inspiration for three generations of rappers.

I’ve stated in several places like here and here that De La’s commentary on the state of rap and their innovative use of samples is what made me a fan. But what was almost as important was the fact that these brothers were unapologetically themselves.

Come on — Sound Sop and Yogurt (the Dove) — both spelled backwards are the names you take on as rappers…shiiiiiiiit. (Of course, Dave hasn’t gone by Trugoy in quite some time, but still).

But in an era where you were either GQ smooth (think…Oak Tree and rayon)or a khaki/Cortez gangster (we’re talking everywhere west of the Mississippi), for those of us who wanted no parts of either, De La was a breath of fresh air.

Questlove had this to say in that regards:

I didn’t have Lee jeans, or Sergio Valente, or Jordache. I had jeans with holes in the knee, jackets accented with splashes of paint.
A few years later the teasing when De La made that kind of thing popular.

And that’s the thing, they were being themselves…their fresh out of high school selves which was misinterpreted then — they never bought into that hippy business — the media ran with the D.A.I.S.Y age and peace signs…so did people across the country which resulted in them catching a beat down or two.

This happened throughout the LL Cool J “Nitro” Tour. DJ Maseo recalled:

We were fighting a lot on that tour… …and De La’s name would come up so much because we not supposed to be that. Not only that, but if I’m in an altercation it’s expected that I’m supposed to get my ass whooped. So it’s more enflamed when I don’t get my ass whooped.

Which was another area where we could relate to De La. Or as New Orleans rapper, Jay Electronica so eloquently put it, “and just ‘cuz I’m a Muslim don’t mean that I won’t smack fire out a nigga if he disrespect me.”

Despite that, the hippy thing stuck. And if people don’t use that term they use other terms like quirky or some other off-putting phrase. First, imagine if people still defined you as the goof ball you were in high school. Second, imagine if you weren’t that person in the first damn place.

Of course some of that is warranted and can be attributed to Prince Paul…but that is two of eight albums. That “quirky stuff,” skits, and inside jokes and the like were gone by Buhloone Mindstate.

Generally speaking, a Black artist never grows beyond that first impression. (It’s much different with white artists who often build their audience making Black music then veer off into the pop world. See: Madonna to Christina Aguillera and everyone in between) Certainly rap groups never escape it, the annals of Rap history would bare me witness.

And this is one of the ways that De La Soul is great.

Maybe it’s the zeitgeist but artists definitely check for De La. Some of their songs were pilfered and became more popular than their inspiration: “How I Can Just Kill a Man” and “Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down” come to mind — two songs that led to a different era in rap got their start in the supposed hippy land of De La.

On Buhloone Mindstate they took Tribe’s tapping older jazz/funk artist a step further. De La landed Fred Wesley, Melvin and Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley and others to provide the music for “Pattie Duke.” (Maceo Parker also appears on two more songs for the album). They may not have been the first to do this type of collaboration but it became quite popular after De La did it.

And since Dilla returned to the essence, a whole new crew of Dilla-tentes have emerged, demanding new albums, slurping up his catalog but rarely mentioning one of his most frequent collaborators — De La. From “Stakes is High” to “Verbal Clap,” De La returned to Dilla beats often. Wax Poetics did their due diligence discussing the group's role in Jay Dee’s life but otherwise…nah.

For all the talk about De La being “hippie-fied,” very rarely do I see discussion about the group’s actual lyrics…which is a shame because very few rappers, in groups or otherwise, have touched on the topics De La has.

If I’m not mistaken, De La might be the first rap group to talk about sexual abuse in “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa.” An incredibly nuanced story of how the protagonist of the song came to know Millie, a young girl who was being molested by her social worker father.

The protagonist doubts Millie when she explains to him that her father is abusing her and she wants a gun to make the abuse end. (an essay could be written on that alone)

The ending lines of the song are quite poignant:

None of the kids could understand what was the cause — All they could see was a girl holdin’ a pistol on Claus
Dillon pleaded mercy, said he didn’t mean to — Do all the things that her mind could do nothing but cling to
Millie bucked him and with the quickness it was over

And surely no one has made an open indictment on a family member like Pos did in “My Brother’s a Basehead.” The thing about this song is the music is counter the message. It almost sounds upbeat. But when you hear lyrics like what follows, you know that there’s nothing upbeat about this song at all.

Brother, brother, stupid brother of mine — Started getting high at the age of nine
Now at twenty-one you’re lower than low — Nowhere to turn, nowhere to go
My dividends and wares started to disappear — Where it ended up, I had an idea
Barking you with the quickness, reversed intent — Instead went to Pop and gave him the print — Now Pop grew tired of being a mouse — Finally told you to get the hell outta the house

Anyone who has suffered through either of these scenarios will recognize how accurate the emotions and scenarios are. Both songs, of course, are on De La Soul is Dead with the latter (song) being so touching that Frank 151 did a follow up on the story. You should read about that here.

The whole album Buhloone Mindstate is a commentary on the music industry from the intro that succinctly states, “It might blow up but it won’t go pop” to lyrics like, “I be the new generation of slaves here to make papes — to buy a record exec rakes the pile of revenue I create — But I guess I don’t get a cut cuz my rent’s a month late.

Pos and Dave’s voices and lyrics complement each other, with Pos’ verses being more personal (We know Pos’ brother fell victim to drug abuse — see: above — his daughter was born 26 years ago. We know when the Native Tongues were having conflict, his group’s troubles with the label, the tension that touring caused between him and his significant other, etc.) while Dave’s verses tend to be more poetic, all the while matching their flows to the track.

This is what a group dynamic should provide — a yin/yang type relationship.

Seperate of that, Pos and Dave can RAP. Most of us forgot what that means or sounds like so “allow me to retort.”

To say someone can rap does not just mean they can rhyme words, my three year old can do that. To say someone can rap means: they have a commanding voice, breath control, a clever way of putting words together, a unique way to said rhyming words over the beat, having the ability to tell a story that leaves a clear image in your head.

De La Soul sound the same on stage as they do on their records. No wheezing or losing their breath on complicated verses. Perhaps that’s the era they come from, but to have a strong voice and ability to enunciate words is definitely a throwback to the day of proper MCing.

What has always made De La stand out from other groups is their clever use of language. A current reviewer couldn’t understand the appeal of 3 Feet… — he needed a tutor. The package of late 80s sampling distracted him from the wordplay that won over music fan, artist, and critic alike.

Wanna hear and understand why songs like “Plug Tunin’” stood out in the so-called golden era but can’t appreciate the way “Written on the Walls” was flipped, I would suggest listening to “Dilla Plugged In” from the Dilla dedicated Smell The D.A.I.S.Y project where the group reworked older lyrics over Dilla beats. Check Dove’s verse:

Aiyyo, gaze at the sight of a method — Dive beneath the depth of a neverending verse — Gasping and swallowing every last letter — Vocalised liquid holds the quench of your thirst — Reasons for the rhythm is for causes unknown — Different individuals are dazzled by the showbiz
Auditions are gathered but the Soul would just rather — Hold a count at three.. and in the end leave it as it is — Flow to the sway of my do-re, mi
Leaving are fixed lunatics who will hawk — Words are sent to the vents of all humans — Then converted to a phrase called talk — Musical notes will send a new motto — Every last poem is recited at noon

Which may be too abstract for an audience who are used to rhymes that strength lies in the repetition of words. But a look at any of De La’s modern work will also demonstrate how they continue to improve their flows and ways of expressing ideas.

De La’s storytelling was mentioned above and is underrated. Being able to tell a story is the cornerstone of what makes a rapper a rapper in this writer’s humble opinion. Pos and Dave paint a clear picture.

Case in point — this “Greyhounds” verse from the forthcoming album:

Fresh from a bible belt town — That’s what she’s givin’ up
Not really livin’, just flesh comin’ off a greyhound — Right at a blink of an eye he provides her with charm
Hides that he is a shark — Suggests a few apartments, never hints to the home — That’s what he wanna do

I don’t know about you, but I can see this rightchea like it’s on a flatscreen.

This may not matter to most people, certainly don’t expect it to be a part of their criteria for what makes a group great, but for this writer, the fact that De La Soul are lovers of the culture — that means a lot to me. I would say that that love comes across in the music.

Some people mention old school rap or say the name of old school groups but De La quotes them. Not just songs from modern recorded rap either. I challenge you, reader, tell us where the “Sh.FeMC’s” opening chorus “we are here to tell the world just who are” comes from.

And that’s the thing, long before it was common with rappers to quote older verses from other MCs, De La had long been doing it seamlessly.

Not to mention, they are aware of their place in the annals of rap history.

The first time I heard this verse from Pos, I nodded my head in agreement. I share the same sentiment. (aside from the skull snapping part…ya boy is rap challenged)

I’m a rap fan who never saw Bam rock the parks in the Bronx
Yet I still make snap skulls in the dark

Extra points for the reader who got the “snap skulls” reference.

In a time long gone, rappers created their music strictly out of love for the culture. They worked hard to perfect their skill in hopes of gaining the respect of their peers and entertaining a crowd in the process. Money was a byproduct of that work and not the motivating factor.

One gets the feeling that while De La Soul ain’t hurting for money (they stay on tour), they definitely still make music for the love of it. That’s Hip-Hop.

When I read about De La Soul starting a Kickstarter to fund their album, I was intrigued. I knew they weren’t on a label and knew that there had to be some sort of explanation for it. After I heard that they raised the money in under ten hours and that they were putting that money towards live instrumentation, I got really intrigued. All told, De La pulled from over 200+ hours of live recordings. Pos spoke of the sessions like this:

We would have jam sessions going on for about 15 minutes. Out of those sessions, we would loop something, or chop something up, or manipulate something, so each session could morph into three different songs, or even four. Posdnous

Like my brother, Sayyed Munajj, I avoided listening to the first songs released in promotion of the album. So I never heard “Pain.” Can’t say what made me decide to listen to “Drawn.” But I did and that excitement is what inspired me to write this article.

“Drawn” is featuring Little Dragon and the wonderful, hypnotic voice of Yukimi Nagano who really gets loose at around the minute and twenty-five second point. Two minutes in…still no rap…a little bit of drums, but it don’t sound like any rap song that I ever heard. The track feels like it’s building up to something but to what, it’s hard to say. (I look forward to reading more about the making of this song). It’s not until almost 4 minutes in that “Drawn” even resembles a rap song. Pos doesn’t come in until 4:54 (of a 5 minute 33 second song).

Word is bond, this song could have been ten minutes long on some o’ Rammellzee type business and I would have been JUST FINE with it.

I really racked my brain thinking of all the rap groups (EPMD, Nice & Smooth, Onyx, Tribe, Wu, etc)…then r&b groups (you don’t need any examples)that have been around as long as De La Soul, there ain’t many. If you eliminate groups that broke up, groups that replaced members, groups that no longer are recording, that number gets smaller.

I thought about it long and hard. De La Soul has to be the only group making music that I’ve been listening to since High School. HIGH SCHOOL. We’re talking 27 years. My mother couldn’t say the same thing when she was my age. Wasn’t no one from 67 still making relevant music in 94. Not many other generations can say the same about any of their favorite artist either.

I’m gonna go ahead and listen to this album now. You sit back and think of your favorite group and measure it with the criteria that I listed above, scroll to your streaming service or just download and The Anonymous Nobody, you won’t be disappointed. I tell ya…De La Soul is one of the Greatest Rap Groups…ever.

I think including a playlist is only right:

  1. D.A.I.S.Y Age (3 Feet High & Rising)
  2. Pease Porridge (De La Soul is Dead)
  3. Oodles of O’s (De La Soul is Dead)
  4. Fanatic of the B Word (De La Soul is Dead)
  5. Eye Patch (Buhloone Mindstate)
  6. Ego Trippin’ Part Two (Buhloone Mindstate)
  7. I Am I Be (Buhloone Mindstate)
  8. Dinninit (Stakes is High)
  9. Stakes is High (Stakes is High)
  10. The Bizness (Stakes is High)
  11. Watch Out (AOI: Bionix)
  12. Peer Pressure (AOI: Bionix)
  13. Bionix (AOI: Bionix)
  14. View (AOI: Mosaic Thump)
  15. With Me (AOI: Mosaic Thump)
  16. The Future (The Grind Date)
  17. Verbal Clap (The Grind Date)
  18. The Grind Date (The Grind Date)
  19. Go Out and Get It (Impossible: Mission TV Series: Part 1)
  20. Just Havin’ a Ball (Impossible: Mission TV Series: Part 1)

This here is just a starter kit. 2o is enough to begin with, right? And oh yeah, I love and the Anonymous Nobody — it’s exactly what I expected — it’s original…and then some.

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